Travel

Get your caffeine on in the West

Portland (Multnomah, Oregon)Dushanbe (Tajikistan)Jack LondonChesapeake Bay BridgeStarbucks Corp.

Do you get your buzz from a big mug of java or a shot of espresso? Maybe a soy hazelnut latte with honey or an icy frappé dripping with whipped cream and cinnamon? Or just a cuppa joe? How about your tea — black, white, green, yellow, red bush, oolong, pekoe, chai, herbal or obscure? No matter how you dress them up, naked coffees and teas from around the world are the first and most important step to creating beverages savored daily by nearly 70% of Americans.

In fact, one-third of the world's population now drinks coffee. That's about 2 billion coffee drinkers. No other beverage (except water) is as popular.

Some of the first coffee consumers may have been goats, who didn't really care about the frou-frou options. Legend has it that a goatherd in the Ethiopian highlands where coffee is native saw his goats perk up after eating coffee berries, the fruit of the coffee tree. The goatherd told his abbot, who made a drink from the berries to help him stay awake during evening prayers.

From Ethiopia, coffee consumption spread to the Arabian Peninsula, eastern Mediterranean, Europe and the Americas. How popular is it? Well, Starbucks now operates about 17,000 cafes worldwide.

And as for modern frou-frou: The Viennese serve coffee a couple of dozen ways, including mélange (with hot milk plus foamed milk on top), Eiskaffee (cold with vanilla ice cream and, if that's not enough calories for you, whipped cream) and Kaisermelange (black with honey, egg yolk and Cognac).

Using techniques similar to those used by sommeliers, chocolate tasters and perfumers, you can learn the basics of coffee beans and tea leaves in order to define and refine your favorites. We've found a dozen hot spots for you to do your own coffee-cupping and tea-tasting while traveling around the West.

Oakland

Get serious coffee instruction at Blue Bottle Coffee's roastery and coffee bar, three blocks from Jack London Square, where free public cuppings are held at 2 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays. This is not kicking back for a foam-decorated cappuccino — oh, no, this is weighty coffee analysis.

For the cuppings, single-source beans (no blends) are brewed black and unfiltered with the grounds floating on top so guests can check aroma, body and surface or "skin." Then the new coffee connoisseurs slurp the liquid to aerate it so taste buds on different parts of the tongue can savor the flavor.

Aeration also helps you feel the "weight" of the coffee, such as whether it's dry and astringent or thick and heavy with lots of depth. Blue Bottle Coffee, 300 Webster St., Oakland; (510) 653-3394, http://www.bluebottlecoffee.net

San Francisco

Head across the Bay Bridge to San Francisco's lively Chinatown for tea tasting with grand claims for health and vitality. Blest Tea — with the slogan "Enjoy the moment of beatitude" — lets you smell some of its more than 60 traditional and herbal teas to decide which ones you want to try.

Cost is $3 for tasting five teas; if you buy loose tea, the tasting is free. Blest Tea, 752 Grant Ave., San Francisco; (415) 951-8516, http://www.blesttea.com

At the three Vital Tea Leaf shops in Chinatown, you'll be asked which health benefits you want from your tea and offered recommended free samples from a selection of 400 intriguing teas in jars neatly lining the walls. How many can you try? Tea server Carina Le answered, "You can try as many as you want until your bladder fills up." Vital Tea Leaf, 509, 905 and 1044 Grant Ave., San Francisco; http://www.vitaltealeaf.net

Portland, Ore.

At the red brick-walled Stumptown Annex, prepare for earnest cuppings at noon and 2 p.m. every day. Following the same steps that coffee growers, roasters and sellers use for evaluation, for 45 minutes you'll sniff, smell, re-smell, smell again, slurp and spit three small cups each of about five coffees — three cups to make sure one bad bean hasn't distorted the experience. Stumptown Annex, 3352 S.E. Belmont St., Portland; (503) 467-4123, http://www.stumptowncoffee.com. Also 3 p.m. daily at 1115 12th Ave., Seattle; (206) 323-1544.

You'll find Steven Smith Teamaker in a 100-year-old building 10 blocks northwest of Portland's gentrified Pearl District. Smith, who co-founded Stash Tea and founded Tazo, said, "We're not a typical teahouse. We don't sell scones and biscuits and tea accessories. Instead, we're trying to bring people into the tea-making experience as closely as possible without them having to wear a hairnet." The tea makers talk about the "geography of the teas" — their origin, how they're processed, where natural flavors reminiscent of chestnut and caramel come from. The shop offers flights — similar to wine flights — of four teas for $5.75. Steve Smith Teamaker,1626 N.W. Thurman St., Portland; (503) 719-8752, http://www.smithtea.com

If atmosphere matters to you, the Tower of Cosmic Reflections is a traditional Chinese teahouse inside the Lan Su Chinese Garden, with upturned corners on the tile roof, red tassels hanging from square light fixtures and ornately carved window frames opening onto a pond with lily pads.

A flight of three to five teas for two people from one category (green, white, black and so on) is $14-$25. Admission to the garden is an additional $8.50 a person. (You must pay the garden admission to visit the teahouse). Tower of Cosmic Reflections, 239 N.W. Everett St., Portland; (503) 224-8455, http://www.taooftea.com.

Seattle

All that caffeine got you moving? Seattle by Foot offers a two-hour Original Coffee Crawl walking tour with local coffee history (including the favorite hangout of Frasier and Niles) and stops at three to four coffeehouses where baristas offer free tastings. You'll also pick up a little Seattle history. $22 with advanced reservations; $26 for walk-ups (cash only). Seattle by Foot, http://www.seattlebyfoot.com

Boulder, Colo.

A block east of the popular Pearl Street Mall, the Cup Espresso Cafe holds organic, fair-trade tastings hosted by Conscious Coffees, a local roastery. The free hourlong sessions, held occasionally on Saturday mornings, include blind tasting of two to six coffees from one or more regions, discussion of the samples' characteristics and guests' reactions. Cup Espresso Cafe, 1521 Pearl St., Boulder; (303) 449-5173, http://www.thecupboulder.com

After all that tasting and testing, it's time to relax at afternoon tea in the Boulder Dushanbe Teahouse, a gift from the people of Boulder's sister city, Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan. Floral ceramic-tile panels, intricately hand-carved columns, bright hand-painted ceilings and furniture with fine detail work derive from Persian and Tajik artistic traditions stretching back nearly two millenniums.

The formal afternoon tea, with white tablecloths and floral arrangements, presents patrons with a choice of one of 100 teas and a "three-tiered tower" of pastries, scones, cucumber finger sandwiches, small cakes and a special course of the chef's discretion. Reservations are required 24 hours in advance. Open 3-5 p.m. daily. Cost $18.95, ($10.95 for children age 9 and younger). 1770 13th St., Boulder; (303) 442-4993, http://www.boulderteahouse.com

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